Loss of fall sports hits businesses, colleges hard



The cancellation of most local college fall sports is the latest bad news in a disastrous year for Dayton area bars and restaurants that prior to the pandemic were packed during UD Flyers and Ohio State Buckeyes games.

“Bars like us and restaurants like us depend on sporting events to help bring in customers to sell our products. It’s really hard without people in the seats,” said Matt South, assistant manager at Kramers, located near the University of Dayton. “People are not coming out like they used to. The COVID has people really scared.”

The two-month statewide economic shutdown had a devastating effect on bars and restaurants like Kramers, where South said he was the only employee left to handle carryout orders until the bar reopened for dine-in. Kramers and other local businesses were hoping for the crowds they usually get in the fall before, during and after UD and OSU games.

“The loss of college sports is going to hurt a lot,” South said.

Citing COVID-19-related health concerns, the Big Ten, Atlantic 10, Mid-American Conference, Horizon League and Pioneer Football League have cancelled or postponed their fall seasons, including for football, field hockey, soccer, women’s volleyball and cross country. The Great Midwest Athletic Conference, which includes Cedarville University, postponed all sports except golf, cross country and tennis.

Credit: David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski/Staff

The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced it will make a decision in mid-September about winter sports like basketball, as those athletes begin practicing as early as next month.

COVID-19 has killed more than 172,000 people in the U.S. and total cases top 5.5 million. The reopening of schools and resumption of sports fuels fear the disease will surge in the fall.

“As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said when the decision was announced.

The economic impact of that decision cuts across multiple sectors, including the colleges and universities and their students, retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, and the media, adding yet another layer of pain in the year of the pandemic that has upended lives and businesses across the world.

“It feels like it just keeps piling on and it’s a challenge for our businesses. They continue to be innovative, they continue to hang in there and find new ways to serve their customers and their patrons. It’s just not easy,” said Sandy Gudorf, president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership. “Depending on down the road what happens with basketball with Wright State and UD, time will tell. They’ve got strong followings and they drive business directly into our businesses.”

It’s difficult to separate out the impact of lost sports tourism revenue from the overall losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic because the hospitality and leisure sector has been so broadly devastated, said Jacquie Powell, president and CEO of the Dayton Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

“We have already seen the devastating effects of the pandemic on all businesses related to the hospitality industry including attractions, bars, hotels, restaurants, and shops,” Powell said. “These effects include elimination of jobs, fundraising event cancellations, drastic decreases in revenue, etc.”

Some individual sporting events are huge money generators. The NCAA First Four Tournament, which is held annually at the University of Dayton but was canceled in March at the start of the pandemic shut down, brings 25,000 fans and participants and has an economic impact of $4.6 million, Powell said. The Dayton region also hosts 65,000 participants and visitors for the Winter Guard International World Championships each year, generating $28 million in economic impact, she said.

The Dayton Dragons draw 500,000 fans each summer and have a $27.5 million economic impact, according to the team’s 2019 annual report.

The economic impact of Ohio State University’s athletic program totals $400.5 million, according to a 2019 OSU study.

“Dayton area colleges, the Dayton Dragons and K-12 athletics all contribute to the local economy. Local businesses need support and patronage from these organizations and they are feeling the burden that COVID has caused,” said Chris Kershner, president and chief executive of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s on our community to find other ways to support these businesses and help make up for these revenue losses that we can’t control.”

What’s the effect on restaurants and bars?

There is a broader effect when hotels, restaurants, bars and retailers catering to sports fans lose that business, said Bill LaFayette, owner of Regionomics, a Columbus-based economic consulting firm.

“If they don’t make sales then their suppliers don’t make sales,” LaFayette said. “And if the bars and restaurants and stores lay people off, then they don’t make household purchases. So the impact ripples across the economy.”

Jeff Hoagland, president and chief executive of the Dayton Development Coalition, said sporting events like UD Flyers basketball games are “about so much more than basketball.”

“We look forward to the games to connect with our friends and cheer on the team, but also to network with business contacts and show out-of-town visitors a uniquely Dayton experience. When the team has an incredible run like they did this year, you can’t put a price on that media exposure,” Hoagland said. ”Dayton was in the hearts and minds of so many basketball fans across the country. I hope we can be back in the stands when the new season starts.”

The cancellation of NCAA playoffs in March, followed by a delayed start to the truncated Major League Baseball season, had local sports bars playing sports reruns, like the 1970s Cincinnati Reds World Series games. In June the Minor League Baseball season, including for the Dayton Dragons, was canceled.

Brixx Ice Company, located across the street from the Dragons’ Day Air Ballpark, already knows what it’s like to lose sporting events that draw crowds.

The downtown sports bar and grill, which reopened in May, saw a 70 percent decline in business for the summer compared to last summer, said Chris Bahi, general manager. Normally he would have about 46 employees, but he’s operating with 17. Now he’s trying to figure out ways to draw back regular customers and replace the loss of events like a book club and mock court for the University of Dayton Law School.

He said the bar’s 20 TVs will show NBA and National Hockey League playoffs, Cincinnati Reds games and horse races.

“We chose this location because we were 500 feet from home plate,” said Bahi. “Realistically, we have seen such a down tick we do worry if we can sustain this through the winter.”

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Fifty-three percent of restaurants owners said they believe they will be forced to close within nine months if they have to continue to operate at the vastly diminished capacity caused by COVID-19 safety rules and customers’ reluctance to eat out, according to the most recent weekly survey done by the Ohio Restaurant Association.

“This percentage has been steadily increasing over the past 30 days as operators worry about capacity limitations, curfews, colder/wetter weather that will curtail patio and sidewalk dining, and the lack of progress on the next (federal) coronavirus relief bill,” according to the association’s news release announcing the Aug. 7-11 survey results.

More than 80 percent of restaurants do not expect to make a profit in 2020, according to the association.

“The cancellation of sports is nowhere near the shock COVID-19 is, but it is an additional negative shock to those businesses, especially if they were planning on having it,” said Kevin Willardsen, assistant professor of economics at Wright State University. “I would be surprised if this did not result in at least some temporary or permanent closures.”

For business owners like Joe Granito, who has had to cut capacity in his already-cozy Slyder’s Tavern in Dayton, the loss of televised college sports that draw in customers is just one more thing to struggle with.

“Wake me up when it’s all over please,” said Granito. “Wake me up when this bad dream is over.”

Colleges will lose revenue

Colleges themselves will lose revenue from ticket sales and concessions, and in the case of a few big schools like Ohio State, they will see a significant loss of revenue from media rights.

TV and radio stations that broadcast games and rely on advertising revenue from those games are also hurting, said Christine Merritt, president of the Ohio Association of Broadcasters.

“The loss of that is huge. I think everybody is sort of in a holding pattern right now. If games are canceled that advertising revenue is gone,” Merritt said. “Stations were already struggling mightily throughout the conronavirus.”

Ohio State’s football program took in $34 million in media rights revenue, and its men’s basketball program generated $11.6 million, according to Ohio State’s fiscal year 2019 annual report to the NCAA. Those two sports accounted for nearly all of the university’s $59.8 million in total ticket sales for all sports in an athletic program that spent nearly $220.6 million last year.

The University of Dayton Athletic Director Neil Sullivan said UD took a “seven-figure hit” when the NCAA canceled its championship tournament this year. Men’s basketball is the main economic driver for the athletic department and it subsidizes the university’s other sports. Sullivan said men’s basketball brings in $15 million to $17 million annually in externally generated revenues.

Revenue sources include tickets and concessions, NCAA and Atlantic 10 Conference TV revenue distributions, corporate partnerships and arena event income, Sullivan said. The loss of non-UD events at UD Arena is also having an impact on revenue, he said.

Credit: Getty Images

Credit: Getty Images

“We definitely have some headwinds. But everyone has rallied together. We are hopeful this will be a snapshot in time,” Sullivan said. “We will fight our way through it and come out on the other side. And hopefully the other side will come soon.”

Bob Grant, director of athletics at Wright State University, said the pandemic restrictions on travel and gatherings, along with sports cancellations, hampers recruiting of new student athletes and exposure for Wright State teams and athletes.

“Baseball, men’s soccer and volleyball are all in the midst of the best runs they have had in program history,” Grant said. “Without them competing, we are losing out on brand exposure, championship opportunities, TV/streaming exposure and exposure/engagement for fans, donors (and) alumni.”

Credit: Joseph Craven/WSU Athletics

Credit: Joseph Craven/WSU Athletics

The student-athletes get to keep their scholarships and remain in college, but the loss of sports is a huge disappointment for them, according to those interviewed.

“I believe that sports are just as important for young people as academics in the sense that it teaches you life skills. It teaches you character, it teaches you how to prepare for victory, it teaches you how to bounce back from defeat,” said Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, who played football for UD in the late 1980s. “On the individual level this is going to dramatically impact the lives of college athletes across the country and that is not positive.”

It is unclear if the conferences that have characterized this year’s action as “postponement” will actually play in the late winter or spring of 2021. But if the teams do not play at all, it could cost some athletes the opportunity to play professional sports.

“If you’re a senior, it’s particularly devastating because for many athletes they work for their whole lives for that moment,” Husted said. “Some of them don’t even get a chance to play until they are seniors and to have it taken away from them at the eleventh hour has to be very devastating. And I really feel for them.”

He cited as an example quarterback Joe Burrow, who transferred from Ohio State to Louisiana State University and was unremarkable as a player until his stellar senior year, leading him to win the 2019 Heisman Trophy and be chosen as a first round draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

On Aug. 10, just before the Big Ten postponed the fall season, Burrow tweeted: “I feel for all college athletes right now. I hope their voices are heard by the decision makers. If this happened a year ago, I may be looking for a job right now.”

Sullivan said UD football tight end Adam Trautman is another player who needed his senior year to get drafted this year by the New Orleans Saints.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

“In some sports, professional opportunities will certainly be much more limited. The baseball draft this past spring was severely truncated for example. (It is) not a coincidence that this was the first year in many years that a WSU player was not drafted,” Grant said.

“My bigger worry is the uncertain job market. Our student-athletes are truly student-athletes and they work tirelessly toward a degree and a career. These opportunities are very different (and) limited right now.”

Economic impact of sporting events  
EventAttendanceAnnual economic impact
NCAA First Four Tournament25,000 fans and participants$4.6 million
Dayton Dragons professional baseball500,000 fans each summer$27.5 million
Winter Guard International World Championships65,000 participants and visitors $28 million
Ohio State University Athleticsn/a$400.5 million
Sources: Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau, Dayton Dragons 2019 Annual report, Ohio State University 2019 Economic Impact Study 

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